If writer Susan Sontag hadn't died, photographer Annie Leibovitz's new book would have been a much different work of art.
"I probably wouldn't have looked at many of these [photos for the book] if Susan had not died," said Leibovitz; at an Oct. 16 discussion of A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 at Politics and Prose, a Washington, D.C.-based bookstore.
On one of the first stops of her Random House book tour, Leibovitz showed slides of photos from the book and signed copies of her hefty tome at the Connecticut Avenue hot spot. More than 200 people packed into the small two-floor store and owners had to turn people away.
Dressed in black from head to toe, the photographer, known for her work with Rolling Stone magazine and an image of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore, showed a softer, more personal side in the 25-minute talk. At times, she seemed to become emotional when she read about her companion Sontag's death and battle with cancer.
Personal photos, mostly in black and white, of her father, mother, brother, sisters, three children and Sontag are balanced in the book with colorful portraits of well-known figures - Johnny Cash, Nicole Kidman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Keith Richards, Michael Jordan and President Bush with members of his cabinet.
"Not the best lighting," she began her talk, referring to the glare over the wooden podium set up for her in the store. The crown giggled. She said that her sister and brother-in-law were from the area and had suggested she visit this bookstore on her multi-city U.S. book tour.
"I consider this chapter two of my work," she said. "Like a Part Two." Her first look back was from 1970 to 1990.
The surveying of the Sontag photos, she said, began when she was pulling together an album for her partner's memorial service in 2004.
But the meat of the book took shape in a barn in upstate New York. She used one wall to view her personal work, including the many photos of Sontag, and another to see her assignment work. She told the crowd that she found it daunting to choose which photos to use from both walls. An editor friend eventually "helped meld together the two worlds," Leibovitz said.
Originally, Leibovitz was reluctant to do a written introduction, which talks about the circumstances behind the photos.
"Now I find it so much a part of the book. It was really freeing," she said.
The night's discussion was like a regular book reading, with Leibovitz beautifully recounting moving and funny selections of the introduction with the corresponding slides for illustration.
"This is a serious book," she said.
The book's cover shot of Leibovitz was taken by Sontag on one of the couple's four trips to Venice, she explained.
Leibovitz said the process of sifting through the photos was "like an archeological dig" that "made me feel closure and helped me say goodbye" to her father and Sontag.
While spending time with Sontag in a New York hospital as she suffered from leukemia, Leibovitz explained how she had to rush to Florida to see her father, also dying from cancer. By the time she returned to New York, Sontag had died. Her father died six weeks later. The book has photos of Sontag and her father after their deaths (see more information in the editor's blog).